I was born on the opposite edge of the continent from the city where I now live, so I had to have traveled to get here. That journey, however, was anything but direct. To make it to this place, I had to complete forty-six moves over four continents in nine countries. Even from those various coordinates I once called home, I traveled even further, to more countries and additional places. The process of stasis is foreign to me, more foreign than Somalia or Barbados or Portugal.
I remember many of the places I’ve visited and the events I’ve lived through with uncanny precision. The fish market in Oporto. A box of royal pythons slipping among each other in Accra. A drawerful of fireworks catching fire in my friend’s backyard in Miraflores. The unfinished American embassy, home only to bats, in Mogadishu. Trying to catch a poisonous snake, its head swaying at me almost seductively, in Tangier. A young boy trying to sell us a new sibling, his even younger sister, on the streets of Lima. But, often enough, the minuscule slips of memories I carry in my head adhere to no particular point in space, at least none that I can recall. So I am not sure if a particular street corner I remember was in Arequipa or Puno. If a certain mountainscape ensnared in my head is from Portugal or Spain. Memories linger, yet they never expand. They only contract over time.
This is the reason we write down thoughts about our travels. To remember them accurately, to memorialize them, to hold on to our past as it slips farther and farther away from us, diminishing almost into a speck, a recollection no bigger than a blink. Anything we might write about our travels during the course of them is apt to be fragmented, each day being a separate piece separable again into numerous other pieces, only a few of which we might try to save through words.
Some people write only postcards, sending each out to a single person or family and allowing only as much information as four square inches can afford. Most of these postcards provide less than a glimpse into the events of the day or the trip as a whole: a brief comment about the surrounding beauty or rain, a wish that the recipient could have joined the party for the trip, or the tiniest fragment of a story about a parrot perched on a wrist or a hill wrapped in clouds.
Others write diaries during their travels, though these are usually abbreviated. Traveling is usually also travail. There are problems to solve on the way, and even when life is fine it is busy. On a traveling vacation, many people try to fill their days with memories for a lifetime, so they take the extra step each day and each night when their energy is spent to scribble but a few words about each day. But those few words carry weight; those few captured thoughts reflect the most important features of the trip, drop into the glowing amber of words only the most precious fragments of that sequence of experiences. What happens with most travel diaries I’ve seen is that they peter out near the end. The press of living on the road saps all the extra energy from the writer, who ends the story with blank pages, not even fragments, of a life lived too full.
When I travel with my family, I document it carefully and as fully as I can, though only in bits. I sometimes send, to a large group of friends and family, ePostcards that recount each of our days’ activities. The accounts are little personal essays filled with dramatic retellings of our adventures of the day; they attempt to condense our experiences into a few words, reducing them to those singular events that might bear remembering. Recently, our travelogues appear in the form of daily postings to a blog, which includes photographs and video clips along with my usually pithy narratives. Each of these methods of recording our vacations is lapidary, consisting of nothing but a handful of jewels representing each day. I usually extend the fragmentation of our experiences by ending each blog or each series of ePostcards with the statistics of our trips. Here’s a slightly abbreviated set of these fragments:
Statistics for our 1997 Summer Vacation
12,000: approximate highest elevation we reached on the trip (in feet)
9,208: number of miles travelled
6,906: approximate number of bugs killed with our car (estimating 0.75 bugs killed for each mile travelled)
1610: the common station on the AM dial that provides tourist information (in no instance did this provide any information to us besides static)
698.7: most miles driven in a single day during this trip
329: number of trip-related e-messages sent and received during this trip
120: approximate highest temperature we experienced in degrees Fahrenheit (while in Death Valley)
85: highest speed reached during this trip, in miles per hour (while passing a truck in Kansas just as oncoming traffic appeared)
75.9: percentage increase seen in the total mileage on the car
49: number of states for which we found license plates on the way east across the country (We never found Maine, although we found Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Nova Scotia to make up for this)
48: total number of states each of us has visited
40: approximate lowest temperature we experienced in degrees Fahrenheit (while camping outside Anaconda, MT)
37: number of people receiving the ePostcard at the end of the trip
35: number of states we found painted on the sides of U-Haul trucks
31: number of National Park Service areas visited during this trip
29: number of people receiving the ePostcard at the beginning of the trip
22: number of states visited during this trip
16: number of nights spent in the homes of family or friends
13: number of states slept in during this trip
13: steepest grade experienced during this trip
11: number of nights spent in a hotel or motel
8.95: price in dollars of the cheapest advertised double-occupancy hotel room rate we saw (in Nevada)
7: highest number of National Park Sites visited in a single day (when three historic sites occurred very close to one another and all of them on four national trails: the Oregon, the California, the Pony Express, and the Mormon Pioneer)
6: number of homes of family and friends we stayed at
6: number of states Erin visited for the first time during this trip
5.5: number of states Tim visited for the first time during this trip (He was in Colorado once before at his seventh month in utero) 〈NB: This statistic is disputed as inaccurate by Erin.〉
5: number of states Nancy visited for the first time during this trip
5: total number of times Geof has crossed the country by automobile
4: number of people on the trip
4: number of Junior Ranger badges Timmy earned during this trip
4: total number of times Nancy, Erin and Tim have crossed the country by automobile
4: number of states crossed twice during this trip (PA, OH, WA, KY)
3: number of states where we saw wheel ruts from the Oregon Trail (Washington, Wyoming, Nebraska)
3: number of nights spent camping
3: number of wheat pennies we found during this trip (We found all of them in California)
3: number of motel chains we patronized (Holiday Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn)
3: number of license plates we found from Hawaii
2: number of states Geof visited for the first time during this trip
1: number of arms we broke during the trip
0: number of traffic tickets received during this trip
-190: lowest elevation we reached (Furnace Creek in Death Valley)
Travel—for work and pleasure and sometimes for something that is not quite either—remains a constant in my life. I spend at least fifty to sixty nights away from home each year, and this year that number will certainly be above seventy. This travel necessarily breaks my life into fragments: a day in the office, a day on the road, a weekend at home, a weekend at play. And every night away from home I do a few things to mark that occasion: I send a postcard recounting my day to a certain friend of mine (the one who most closely shares my love of travel), I create little artistic postcards that I mail to various artists I know across the globe, and I usually add a note in my journal about my day. On each of these flaps of paper I always write exactly where I am (the city, the hotel, the room), so I can always place myself in space at a later day and so I can tell if I ever sleep in the same hotel room twice. In this way, I control my fragments.
The problem with travel is the problem with life as a whole: It has no clear narrative. Extraneous events crisscross through even the most focused of trips, and we must strip away those events to find the core of the narrative. Yet it remains always a necklace of events, an apparent whole that is nothing but a sequence of unitary particles in space and time. Every time we try to capture an experience through writing, it breaks into pieces: every essay fragments into paragraphs, every paragraph into sentences, every sentence into words, every word into letters, every letter into strokes of the pen. The only whole we ever hold is a handful of fragments, shifting up and down and left and right among each other, reformulating themselves into new narratives, never still and always ready to allow a memory to slip between our fingers and out of our grasp forever.